Rita Shelton Deverell has been a Black woman in Canadian media for half a century
When racism slammed doors in her face, Deverell led the struggle to open new ones.
This is the second in a series of articles about the 2022 Governor General's Performing Arts Awards laureates.
I don't often get nervous when interviewing people but I started stuttering — a lot — when I spoke to Rita Shelton Deverell.
For over five decades Deverell has charted a singular path in Canadian arts and media as a broadcaster, a director, a scholar, a producer, an educator, a playwright, an actor and an advocate (Disclosure: Deverell currently sits on the Board of Directors for CBC/Radio Canada).
It's impossible to list all of her accolades, but here is a quick rundown of some major highlights. Deverell is one of the first Black women in Canada to be a television host and a network executive. She was the first woman to lead a journalism program in a Canadian university and she is one of the founders of Vision TV, the world's first multi-faith and multicultural television network. She served as news and current affairs director for the APTN and mentored her Indigenous successor. She was inducted into the Canadian Broadcasters Hall of Fame and was appointed to the Order of Canada in 2005.
It's important to note that Deverell accomplished many of these things in spaces where she was often not only the first, but the only Black person. That meant confronting racism that was not only systemic and insidious but also instances that were direct and overt without the support of the advocacy groups that we have today. In our conversation she talked about the "collapse" that came after one particularly racist encounter with an executive producer at the CBC and the critical importance of moving away from self-blame. Instead Deverell began to unapologetically and publicly state the facts of her experience and bravely name the racism of those moments, forcing her own kind of reckoning and healing: "When you can say this is what happened to me, that was the first big step to a form of recovery."
At the age of sixty, she started the next chapter of her career by writing her first theatre play and returning to the stage after a three decade hiatus in acting. Later this month she will receive the Governor General's Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement.
I spoke with Deverell about her expansive career, grappling with racism, her return to the arts and the significance of this latest award.
Amanda: While I was doing a little bit of research, I stumbled onto this incredible archival photo of you and your husband Rex Deverell. It was from a 1971 edition of The Toronto Star, and the caption says in part, "they hope to make theatre their life." So I wanted to start our conversation by asking why did your dream of being an actor pivot?
Rita: Well, in some ways the answer is really quite simple. I discovered, as many have discovered before and after, that the life of an actor is extremely difficult. Now, of course it didn't help that I was Black in 1970s Canadian theatre. I fell into broadcasting. Now, what I discovered is that as a producer, researcher, host person, I could have some ideas and talk them up, and make something happen in broadcasting. Whereas that was not possible as an actor. Actors are extremely powerless. That's changed a bit.
So I got [a] gig for four months of research in children's television, and we brought in an expert on violence and children's television in 1971. And the CBC programme Take 30, wanted to interview this person and none of [their hosts] were available. So the producers said, why don't you do the interview? I did the interview, and they were awfully pleased with it.
So the producer of that particular show pitched a 26 part series with me and we made the series in 1973, '74. So Adrienne Clarkson goes to the Fifth Estate, she's no longer on Take 30. I thought, okay, great, maybe I can get this chair, and the executive producer said, "No, you can't. Because you are Black and the Canadian people are not ready for a Black host of a network television show.
Amanda: Wow. What happened after that?
Rita: It totally knocked the wind out of my sails. I kind of collapsed. Now since I'm a high energy person, my collapse maybe doesn't look as obvious to other people. But that's what happened. Meanwhile, I went to a festival of private television stations, and while I was at a session, a journalist, whose name I have forgotten, leaned across the coffee table to me and said, "Why aren't you one Take 30 any more? You were very good." And without thinking, I said, "Because I'm Black." And he said, "Oh, really?" And smelling a story he said, "I'm going to follow up on this." And he did.
He followed up with Peter Herrndorf, who was head of News and Current Affairs. And I can still remember where I was standing when Peter Herrndorf called me in Saskatchewan and said, "Tell me what happened with this. I've heard from this journalist." And I told him what happened and he did an investigation. And he called back in about a week and he said, "I have satisfied myself that what you say is true. This is disgraceful. This is awful. What am I supposed to do now?"
Amanda: He was asking you?
Rita: Yeah. And I said, "the main thing is, you have to tell every single producer at CBC that this is not [OK]."
Going back to acting
Amanda: Did you always keep in the back of your mind that acting was somewhere you wanted to return?
Rita: No, not especially. In part because the founding of Vision TV was so demanding. We, of course, started with no money. So one of the reasons I did so many jobs is because we were 12 people, and running a television network with 12 people is pretty demanding. But the reason I was so eager to help found this television network is because I knew if I wanted a place where people who looked like me could work, I would have to help build it.
Amanda: You've spoken about growing up in the States pre-integration and having such a strong foundation with your parents. I'm wondering if all of those things helped to contribute to this part of yourself that didn't need to see an example but said, "I'm going to chart the path myself if I don't see it."
Rita: Oh, I would say it definitely comes from that. It definitely comes from my parents, having given me from birth the unshakeable conviction that I had a right to live and work and be in whatever spaces I determined that my work and talents would take me.
The first play that I wrote when I was sixty [is] called Smoked Glass Ceiling. And I relate in that play that as a teenager I went to the Alley Theatre in Houston because I wanted to enroll in their programme for teens in acting. The registrar of the Alley Theatre Academy became very upset because there was this little Black girl standing in the lobby wanting to register for the acting programme.
Amanda: How old were you at this time?
Rita: 13 or 14. And she tells me that the schools are segregated, which is true. And so is the academy. Now she's making so much noise that the associate artistic director of the theatre comes into the lobby and what he says is, I can't do anything about this policy of the theatre school, but why don't you volunteer for the theatre itself? So at this moment, I am benefiting from a system of segregation, because if he hadn't had to deal with me, I wouldn't have been volunteering for the theatre every night for my last two years in high school and every weekend and getting to find out all kinds of things.
Then, when it came time for university, all these splendid actors [from the theatre] coached me for my audition, for my scholarship which I got. Now, I'm not saying that segregation was a good thing, but the way that problem got solved taught me something, which is, is there another door? A door has just slammed. Is there another door?
On becoming a playwright
Amanda: Can you tell me about the type of stories that you were burning to tell at sixty when you decided to put pen to paper and start writing?
Rita: I was turning sixty and all of those high action news and current affairs days are a younger person's game. I, in fact, was going to find my way back into drama when I was leaving Vision TV. But then the offer came from APTN to be there for three years, mentor my Indigenous successor and kick start a daily news show. Well, that was obviously irresistible.
So in spite of not feeling quite up to that, we trek off to Winnipeg. And that was, of course, an entirely unique experience. So APTN is across the street from Prairie Theatre Exchange. So the way I satisfy my little problem, our news show would go down and I would cross the street and take [acting classes] at Prairie Theatre Exchange. And the result of this was when I was actually coming to the end of my time at APTN, I tossed my name into the Winnipeg Fringe Festival Lottery. My name is drawn and I've got to write a play .
Amanda: You put your name in before you'd written the play?
Rita: Yeah. I hadn't written a word. The advantage of taking the classes was that meant I met a bunch of people in Winnipeg. So suddenly I had a director, I had a dramaturge, I had an audience. I had everything that was needed ... I just had to write the play. And I also said, who is going to hire a sixty year old Black woman who hasn't been [acting] for thirty years? The answer is nobody. So I probably better write my own stuff. So hence I wrote Smoked Glass Ceiling.
Amanda: What was the experience of writing like?
Rita: Actually, it was in a way quite easy. Now the advantage of working in news and current affairs is that you don't have fear of rewriting. I didn't think that every word that I write is precious. If I had a worry about it, it was that I had been married for some time to a full time career playwright. And I wondered how he would react to my suddenly deciding that I was going to write plays.
Amanda: And how did he react?
Rita: (Laughs) He was very gracious about it.
Amanda: Do you have the type of relationship where you read over each other's drafts?
Rita: No. (Laughs) The first time he saw the play was in production. He has been very kind in the intervening 15 years.
On winning the Governor General's Performing Arts Award
Amanda: You've received numerous awards and accolades, but what does the GGPA in particular mean to you?
Rita: This one is especially gratifying because I am an immigrant and it means that the country has embraced me. At least that's what it feels like. In all honesty and gratitude I know I'm in an extremely privileged position because I have been able to do the work I wanted to do — the work that I thought was important — every day for more than 50 years and even get paid for it most days. And that applies to a very small number of people on the planet. So I am very gratified that that has been possible for me. And whatever I can do to make it possible for more people is what I've tried to do also for more than 50 years.
This Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.